(This is part four of a series on World War II veteran Bill Simpson.)
Year of the Dragoon
By the time Simpson recovered from his wounds and returned to his unit several weeks later, the 45th Division had been moved to Salerno.
Amphibious assault training was held in earnest under the hot summer sun.
“We would go out in the morning to the ships maybe half a mile (offshore),” said Simpson. “Then we would crawl over the side of the ship on nets and get into invasion barges. Then we would circle and circle waiting for the other ships and then head in (to shore).”
Once on the beach, Simpson’s job was to reach the barbed wire and yell “Bangalore torpedo.” The soldiers handling the oddly named explosive charge contained in several long tubes would run up to Simpson’s position, slide under the barbed wire and blow a hole in it.
Advancing just beyond the barbed wire was one of the company’s favorite parts of training.
“We would always end up in this watermelon patch and I felt sorry for the poor Italian farmer,” said Simpson. “We’d hit the ground and see these watermelons lying there. We’d take our trench knife and slice it and eat the heart out. We only did that several days on his property but I know that farmer was glad to see us go.”
During a rare break in training, Simpson and a buddy decided to go sightseeing in Salerno. The decision nearly proved fatal.
“We rented a little boat and went out in the water and nearly got run over by an oil tanker,” laughed Simpson. “Neither one of us knew anything about boats. We paddled as fast as we could back to shore and returned the boat. Then we went and saw a movie.”
As the days of training began to mount up, so did the rumors. Many of the men began to believe they were preparing for an invasion of the Balkans.
They soon found out differently. The invasion of southern France, known as Operation Dragoon, occurred on Aug. 15, 1944.
It wasn’t until the regiment was put aboard ships and heading for France that the details of the plan were finally revealed.
Although initial resistance by the Germans was minimal, Simpson’s 12-man squad lost a man to sniper fire just minutes after moving beyond the beaches. As they reached a small road running parallel to the ocean they very nearly lost an inexperienced officer who had chosen to ignore the advice of his battle-hardened men.
“This lieutenant, he had never been in combat before, came running up with his map,” said Simpson. “He said, ‘Let’s make sure we are going in the right direction.’ But he had on his helmet this bright silver (insignia) of a second lieutenant. We had told him he should disguise his helmet some way because (snipers) look to shoot officers.”
Within seconds of opening his map, a keen-eyed German proved the men correct.
“A shot rang out and it hit him right on the silver of his helmet,” said Simpson. “It put a dent in his helmet and he fell back.”
Both Simpson and the lieutenant fell into a ditch on one side of the road while the rest of the squad remained pinned down by fire on the other side.
As Simpson looked up he realized that he was directly beneath a German position located on the top of a 10-foot high embankment.
“We were in a ditch underneath the Germans,” said Simpson. “Next thing I know, here comes all these German hand grenades, there must have been a dozen, and they bounced onto the American side of the road. I couldn’t throw a grenade because it would have come right back down the bank.”
Simpson started crawling along the ditch and advanced about 10 or 15 yards when he realized a German had spotted him.
“A piece of bush would fly off and a thud would go into the bank beside me,” said Simpson. “I looked and here was this German soldier on top of the hill where I was going up. He was looking right down my little ditch. He was on his stomach but propped up against a telephone pole.
“He was shooting at me, so, I decided this wasn’t the place to be. I fired three quick shots with my M-1 (rifle) just to make sure he put his head down. I didn’t even get the chance to aim. Then I crossed the road and kept going up the other side.”
As Simpson looked back he saw another American company had moved up the road and eliminated the enemy position. The German who nearly killed Simpson was lying dead, still propped up against the pole.
“I went up behind him and looked right down his sights at where I had been,” said Simpson. “I was 19 and I was curious.”
The teenager still had four more months of combat ahead of him to try to placate that youthful curiosity.
From nearly the moment he arrived in southern France, Bill Simpson realized he was fighting a much different war than the one he experienced in Italy.
At Anzio, the Allies had nowhere to go. Caught between the deeply entrenched Germans and the sea, American and British soldiers waited throughout the winter of 1944 before finally achieving success in a major spring offensive.
But the days of being stuck in one place for weeks at a time were long gone. Stalemates were no longer an option.
The Allies had the Germans on the run that same summer and the push toward the Fatherland was gaining momentum.
“It’s almost like I fought in two different wars,” said Simpson. “Anzio was a defensive type of thing; France was an offensive type of thing. We were on the move and we were never in the same place the second night.”
As Operation Dragoon got underway on Aug. 15, 1944, Simpson came ashore in southern France as the lead scout for K Company of the 157th Regiment, 45th Infantry Division.
His unit’s first main objective was the town of Saint-Maxime, which they captured the first day with very little resistance.
When Simpson’s platoon walked into the town they were greeted as conquering heroes who were apparently tardy.
“All the doors opened and all the French (residents) started coming out,” said Simpson. “They told me the Germans were gone. Well, I figured they were gone because they wouldn’t be coming out if the Germans were still around. Then the mayor came out and he came running up to me and said, ‘Where have you been?’ I said, ‘Well, we just landed’ and he said, ‘We expected you two days ago.’ The underground had told them we were coming.”
As the soldiers and civilians milled around, Simpson watched as about a dozen young women holding their babies were led into the center of town.
“They started shaving their heads right there in the square,” said Simpson. “They had fraternized and had babies with the Germans. The Germans had been stationed there for a couple, three years.”
The Americans continued to push deeper into France as the Nazis reeled under the Allied onslaught.
“The Germans fought some but mostly they just kept moving out,” said Simpson. “It was great for us because we had them on the run.”
Scenes from the front
Just a few days into the offensive, Simpson witnessed a horrible incident involving French resistance fighters.
As first scout, Simpson was far ahead of his company and leading them down a country road. A concealed German machine gunner suddenly began spraying bullets all over the road and quickly pinned down the entire unit.
Then the shooting stopped just as abruptly as it had begun.
“I kind of looked up to see and here comes three Germans towards us with their hands up,” said Simpson. “The French underground fighters had (flanked them) and captured them.”
Once the group reached the Americans, the French began questioning their prisoners.
“They started saying something and then they shot one, killed him right there,” said Simpson. “These weren’t young (German) soldiers. They were much older, maybe in their 40s. Then (the French) went to the next one and he looked scared to death and they shot him. They shot all three right in front us. Then they saluted us and went back into the woods. They just had no patience with the Germans. It was a shock and it was something that stuck in your mind quite a bit.”
Death during combat was something the veteran soldiers could handle. They had all seen death up close, experienced brushes with it and had lost close buddies. It wasn’t easy but they understood it was all part of the job they were being asked to complete.
But cold-blooded killing or just stupid bad luck always seemed to hit the men hardest, even if it was an enemy soldier on the wrong end of a bad deal.
Simpson vividly recalls such a scene that took the life a German officer.
“We were setting up (defensive positions) for the night and we heard this car coming down the road,” said Simpson. “We tried to warn (the driver) because we had set mines in the road. He went right over them and blew up.”
As the mortally wounded officer was removed from the car, an American sergeant who spoke fluent German tried to offer some comfort.
“The German officer had been home on furlough and was coming back,” said Simpson. “When he left, the front lines were way back and he still thought he was a long way from the front. He lived long enough to talk (for a little while) and then he died right there.”
But the happenstance death that affected Simpson the most was when his best friend, George Genova, was killed by a random German artillery shell at a no-name crossroads in the French countryside.
Simpson was writing a letter to the family of his wounded sergeant when Genova told him he was going to walk back to a stream at the crossroad they had just recently passed.
“He said, ‘I’m going to get some of that fresh water,’” said Simpson. “I said, ‘Go, ahead. I’m writing a letter.’ Our sergeant had been a musician and he just had his whole right arm ripped up. So, I was writing a letter to his wife to tell her that he was going to be okay.”
As Simpson sat writing his letter, he heard a few artillery rounds hit nearby. He soon learned that those shells hit in the vicinity of the crossroads.
“The Germans knew it was a crossroads with fresh water and they would fire on it every so often,” said Simpson. “They didn’t even see (Genova).”
His best friend never stood a chance.
It was one of the few times in the war that Simpson felt true rage. He thought if he ever saw another German, that soldier had better not try to surrender.
“It was one of those things were I thought I would never take another prisoner,” said Simpson. “He and I were very close. It hit so close to home.”
By early October the 45th Division had reached the Vosges Mountains near the German border.
It was in the high country that Simpson had one of his most memorable days as a soldier.
After his company surprised a group of Germans in a small village and captured 70 prisoners, a lieutenant ordered Simpson to take a radio to the top of a hill and inform local artillery units that the town was now in American hands.
As Simpson began to ascend the hill, larger mountains continually interfered with his radio’s signal. He had to climb all the way to the top of the hill before finally making contact.
Alone and winded after such a long climb, Simpson didn’t have much time to rest.
“These two Germans came out of the bushes and they had their hands up ready to surrender,” said Simpson. “I pointed to them to sit down and I finished the message.”
But as Simpson began looking around at the scene down below, he spotted a German convoy attempting to flee out of the valley. He radioed his position and the approximate position of numerous German tanks and trucks.
“I bet it wasn’t three minutes before one of our planes came and strafed the front tank in the convoy and then strafed the last tank,” said Simpson. “Now they couldn’t (move). They looked like ants to me, all these Germans getting out of their trucks. This plane completely wiped them out. They were completely trapped.”
Simpson walked his prisoners down the hill and took them into town where the other Germans were being held.
As he began walking back toward the hill he heard what sounded like a large group running in an alley down below. The experienced G.I. quickly crouched down, knowing immediately by the sound of the hard heels on the pavement that the running soldiers were definitely not American.
“It was like being in a mezzanine and looking down at the orchestra below,” said Simpson. “Just as they got below me I stood up and hollered, ‘Halt.’ They stopped and luckily their lieutenant understood what I was saying. He told them to drop all their weapons and grenades and pile them up.”
Simpson ordered the Germans to start walking with their hands behind their heads. As the line began to move, Simpson realized he was walking behind 16 Germans while only having eight shells in his M-1.
He decided to try and fool the Germans into thinking at least two other Americans were with him.
“As we started moving I thought, ‘They may start realizing that it’s just me,’” said Simpson. “So I hollered back and said, ‘Okay, Charlie. C’mon, John. We are moving out.’”
The ruse worked right up until the time the group reached the POW area. That’s when the German officer began looking around for Simpson’s non-existent buddies.
“He turned to me and said, ‘You were the only one?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ So, I captured 18 prisoners for the day,” said Simpson.
It was also while his unit was in the Vosges Mountains that Simpson received a bizarre visit from an unexpected guest.
One late night, Simpson along with his second scout and a forward artillery observer sat alone on a small mountaintop keeping a close watch on Germans in a nearby meadow. Strangely, a vehicle began speeding toward them on the road down below.
“We had no idea who would be coming,” said Simpson. “Here came these two fellas up the side of the mountain. One of them says, ‘Hello, fellas, I’m here to entertain you. My name is Jack Haley.’”
The three soldiers sat in stunned silence as Haley, an actor best known for his role as the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz,” began casually looking around.
“He said, ‘What are you doing up here?’” recalled Simpson. “I said, ‘Well, we are watching the Germans.’”
Now it was Haley who had the stunned expression.
“He said, ‘Germans?’ and I said, ‘Yes, they are just right over there,’” said Simpson. “He took a peek and said, ‘Fellas, it’s been great to meet you and if you ever get to Hollywood look me up’ and then he went down the hill. I’ve never seen anybody move that fast. They got in their jeep and they were gone.
“How they ever got through to us, I don’t know. They missed the roadblocks or something. We had a good laugh about that later on.”
(The conclusion of this story will appear in next week’s edition.)